Half-way through Victoria and Abdul, someone smirks that its hero is a “brown John Brown” - a clever way of acknowledging that you might just have seen a similar film before. In 1997, Judi Dench starred alongside Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown, a fact-based drama about the widowed Queen Victoria being lifted from her depression by her friendship with a servant, John Brown. But now, 20 years on, Dench is again playing Victoria, and Her Majesty is again in a grey mood which can only be lightened by a frank and loyal underling.
Maybe in another 20 years, Dench will play an even older Victoria who is bucked up by an even less likely mistress-servant relationship, but in the meantime the man for the job is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian who works as a prison clerk in Agra. Shipped over to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial trinket at a Golden Jubilee banquet, Abdul is handsome enough - and fawning enough - to catch her eye: the real Karim was nowhere near as slender as the one on screen. In no time, Victoria has employed Abdul to, well, stand around decoratively in her study. And in not much more time, she has promoted him to “Munshi”: guru, Urdu teacher, and authority on all things Indian, from mangos to the Taj Mahal. She is so revitalised by her cheerful and affectionate young companion that she is soon trilling Gilbert and Sullivan numbers like a smitten schoolgirl. Even the royal bowel movements, we are informed, have been miraculously improved by Abdul the human laxative.
You could see it as a calculating attempt to produce the most commercial and unchallenging British film in history
Basically, Victoria and Abdul is both an unofficial sequel to Mrs Brown and an unofficial remake of it, although if you were being more cynical, you could see it as a calculating attempt to produce the most commercial and unchallenging British film in history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this cosy, chaste, upstairs-downstairs rom-com comes from Working Title, the company behind Four Weddings and a Funeral. But with its pomp and pageantry, its stately homes and country estates, Victoria and Abdul might as well have been funded by the UK’s Tourist Board.
So much for being cynical. The film may be selling a rose-tinted, royalist image of Britishness, but it’s an image that audiences will queue up to buy. Stephen Frears, the director of The Queen, knows how to keep the culture-clash comedy bright and sprightly, and Lee Hall, the screenwriter of Billy Elliot, has written a script which can be charming fun while having a few digs at racism and snobbery along the way. Dench, of course, is as formidable but soft-centred as everyone’s dream grandma, and the supporting actors, including Olivia Williams, Eddie Izzard and the late Tim Pigott-Smith, do plenty of expert harrumphing as the various officials who can’t believe that a foreigner is suddenly at the heart of the Queen’s Household.
Unfortunately, harrumphing is all they do. Once Abdul has been installed in a cottage in the grounds of Victoria’s Isle of Wight residence, Osborne House, the film has nothing left in store except reruns of the same scene. Every 10 minutes, a toff with a beard splutters, “You can’t do that!” Victoria snaps, “I am the Queen of England. I can do whatever I like.” Steam then shoots out of the toff’s ears, and the viewer is duly reassured that while aristocrats are a shower of pompous fuddy-duddies, monarchs themselves are a fundamentally progressive and down-to-earth bunch.
We aren’t told what Abdul thinks about anything, beyond his slavish devotion to Victoria
That’s about all there is to it. One key difference between Mrs Brown and Victoria and Abdul is that in the 1997 film, the closeness between the Queen and her servant was shown to scandalise Parliament and the country at large. But in the 2017 film, nobody outside the Queen’s immediate circle is shown to give a hoot. Nor are we told what Abdul himself thinks about all the fuss. We aren’t told what he thinks about anything, for that matter, beyond his slavish devotion to Victoria. In one sequence, she realises that he doesn’t have children, so she sends her personal physician below stairs, as it were, to examine him. Poor, passive Abdul never gets to say whether he actually wants to be a father or not.
A braver, more complex film might have scrutinised the Munshi’s motives more closely. It might have asked whether he was the opportunistic charlatan described by his detractors. It might also have asked how he felt about British rule in India. But Frears and Hall stick to a simpler, more comfortingly nostalgic story. Commercially, this was doubtless the right decision. But considering that one of their themes is that a lowly Indian should be respected as an individual, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t afford him the same respect.
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